I’ve been told that part of being an observant Jewish woman means dressing modestly. I’m very confused, however, about the standards of modesty and how they come to be established. I don’t see much in the Torah about this. What does dressing modestly mean?


Here is a rundown of how women’s modest dress is determined. There are three categories of guidelines regarding dress: dat Moshe, dat Yehudit and minhag hamakom.

Dat Moshe means “the law of Moses,” and it refers to guidelines directly from the Torah. The only aspect of modesty that fits in this category is that a married woman must cover her hair. We derive this from Numbers 5:18, where the text implies that, for a married woman, uncovered hair is a disgrace. Since it is mentioned in Torah, it becomes permanently institutionalized, i.e., not subject to change. Even if all married Jewish women in the world would go about with their hair uncovered, this rule stays the same.

Dat Yehudit, “the law of the Jewish woman,” is fascinating. It refers to the accepted standard of modest dress in the Jewish community. Standards adopted by observant Jewish women assume the status of law. What’s unique about this is that no other commandment is so dependent on human decisions. G‑d doesn’t say, “Just rely on your innate sense of kosher and you’ll be fine.” But that’s exactly what He tells us about modesty. “I created woman with an innate sense of modesty, and I know I can rely on you to express that in your dress and demeanor.”

Unlike dat Moshe, some aspects of dat Yehudit vary by place and era. The accepted codes in Spain of 1,000 years ago and Poland 600 years ago are different from each other, and different from now. Even today, you’ll find differences between different places. Nevertheless, certain basic rules never change, and it seems that those explicitly mentioned in the Talmud are among them, for example, not uncovering the thigh.

On the other hand, there are certain aspects that are not spelled out in any of the earlier sources—things that just never needed to be said until our day and age. For most of our history, it seems, it was enough to say: “Dress and act as good Jewish women do.” Women just knew.

That brings us to minhag hamakom, “the custom of the local place.” If you live in an area where all observant Jewish women adhere to a certain standard or rule of dress, you need to follow along. It’s disrespectful to the community, as well as immodestly conspicuous, to openly depart from the norm. Few places today are so homogeneous with regard to dress, but should you happen to find yourself in one, be respectful of their codes. Keep in mind, however, that minhag hamakom only works to raise standards, not to lower them. If you come to a place where all the women are unfortunately lax about standard dat Yehudit, then it’s up to you to set an example and blaze a pathway to get that community back in shape.

This all has very practical applications. For some of those applications, along with a broader perspective on modesty and its preservation of female dignity, I would suggest that you begin here.

Mrs. Malkie Janowski

Tractate Brachot 24a; Tractate Ketubot 72a; Rambam, Hilchot Ishut, 24:12; see explanation of dat Yehudit in Shulchan Aruch, Even Haezer 115; regarding minhag hamakom, see Tractate Pesachim 50a.